An environmental group warns that a substantial portion of the drinking water for some 1.5 million Oregonians could be at risk if a proposed bill to create a timber trust on federal forestlands in Western Oregon becomes law.
The computerized study by the Ashland-based Geos Institute released Thursday concluded that nearly 80 communities, including Medford, Rogue River and Grants Pass, could have their drinking water sources polluted by logging sediment if the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act is approved.
The study's results, however, were questioned by a former Yale School of Forestry dean, who said it failed to address the impact that limiting timber harvests has on forestlands and area communities.
The Bureau of Land Management administers about 2.6 million acres in Western Oregon, including 2.1 million acres of what the Geos Institute said was at-risk former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands and Coos Bay Wagon Road holdings now under the agency's jurisdiction.
"These BLM lands are ground-zero in efforts to hold onto some of the highest water quality, best salmon habitat and oldest forests remaining in Oregon," Dominick DellaSala, the report's author and chief scientist at the institute, said in a prepared statement. The institute's primary focus is on climate change and factors that can contribute to that change.
"Intensively logging them to solve the counties' fiscal predicament is shortsighted and will squander the natural assets that make Oregon one of the most beautiful places in the nation to live and work in," he said.
The study focused on what it described as potential clear-cutting on a nearly 1.5-million-acre timber trust contained in the bill.
The report concluded that 19.1 percent of the drinking water source area for Medford could be impacted, 26.7 percent for the city of Rogue River and 36.5 percent for Grants Pass. They were among more than two dozen communities with drinking watersheds overlapping what the report identified as at-risk BLM lands. Another 53 communities with lower-percentage impacts were also included in the study.
"Drinking water is a key element being overlooked in this debate over the future on these lands," DellaSala told the Mail Tribune. "Water is already in short supply as communities continue to grow. With logging you get more sediment, more costs to clean the water."
In 1996, Salem spent $100 million on new treatment facilities after logging in upper watersheds combined with storms led to high levels of sediment in the water supply, he noted.
"If the intake is downhill from a logging operation, sediment is coming downstream," he said. "When these lands are logged heavily, it increases the threat to the water supply, polluting it with sediment."
On the other hand, Medford can be expected to benefit from improved water quality resulting from recently completed restoration measures on Little Butte Creek, he said. The same work to reduce sediment loads in the water provide good opportunities for spawning salmon, he observed.
But retired forest scientist John Gordon of Portland, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry who retired from that post in 2001, questioned whether the study was too narrowly drawn.
"Managed forests provide pure water compared to that coming from agriculture and urban uses," he observed. "If you look across land use types, you get a much higher water quality as a rule from managed forests.
"One of the reasons for that is timber harvesting is done carefully — by and large — these days," he added. "Very little sediment moves over land into the streams."
When it does, it is often the result of roads, land failure or a stand replacement fire, he said.
"Active forest management tends to make it less likely that a catastrophic fire will occur," he said.
The point, he said, is that the risk to community water sources should be considered along with other risks, from fires to the social decay created when public forestlands are withdrawn from timber production.
"Thinking about one thing at a time is probably not the way to go about solving our forest problems," he concluded.
Noting the study involves a legislative proposal, the BLM could not comment, according to a spokesman for the agency's Medford District.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, one of the three main sponsors of the bill, also declined to comment on the details of the study.
"Oregonians have been responsibly managing forests since the time of the Oregon Trail, and simply want the chance to put our people back to work in the woods," said Andrew Malcolm, Walden's spokesman in D.C. "That's why Greg has written a bipartisan plan to create jobs in the woods, use the revenue generated to fund essential local services like schools, roads, and law enforcement, and end the status quo of gridlock litigation."
In addition to Walden, who represents the 2nd Congressional District which includes eastern Oregon as well as Jackson and a portion of Josephine County, the bill is result of a bipartisan effort including U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield; and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby.
Walden, DeFazio and Schrader have argued their bill would protect the environment while giving a much needed economic boost to the 18 Western Oregon counties that have been dependent for decades on timber-related payments from O&C lands.
The act would place the O&C land into two trusts, with roughly half of it managed for conservation while the remainder would become the timber trust which would be managed for sustainable timber production.
The proposal is supported by the Oregon House and Senate, 15 boards of county commissioners, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and industry groups.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, won't have a final O&C proposal until later this summer, noted Tom Towslee, state communications director for the senator.
"But he has made it clear that any successful O&C legislation will need to create jobs in the woods, protect clear water sources, old growth trees and habitats, and establish a permanent and stable source of revenue for O&C counties," Towslee stressed.
A link to the study can be found on the Geo Institute website, http://www.geosinstitute.org.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.